Gray balks at repaying expenses Democrat contends he has not exceeded council spending limit

'That's nuts'

Republican chairman is demanding $1,316 from potential rival

February 16, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County Council members C. Vernon Gray and Darrel E. Drown traded barbs yesterday, with Mr. Gray refusing to bow to the council chairman's demand that he repay the county more than $1,000 for travel expenses and cellular telephone bills.

The East Columbia Democrat said he owes nothing because his expenses remain under the council's $4,800 annual limit. He said the limit has been in effect only four months -- dating from its approval in October by council members.

"That's nuts," said Mr. Drown, the Republican council chairman. He said the limit goes back seven months, to July 1, the beginning of this fiscal year.

"I'm not going to mud-wrestle Vernon on this," Mr. Drown said. "If he wants to go on owing the county money, he can. This is about accountability. It's called taking care of the taxpayers' money."

Mr. Drown pointed to council documents that state the $4,800 limit includes all expenses for this fiscal year.

The county has paid $6,116 in expenses for Mr. Gray since July 1 -- or $1,316 above the council-imposed ceiling.

The matter came to a head this week when Mr. Drown sent Mr. Gray a memo demanding repayment of the $1,316 and putting him on notice that the county would not reimburse him for more expenses this fiscal year.

But Mr. Gray said yesterday that he would continue attending conferences and seminars -- at the county's expense.

"If some of my Republican colleagues on the council would get some continuing education, maybe they would learn to respond to problems with facts and figures rather than being so visceral," said Mr. Gray.

But he also said: "It's politics. I can deal with the politics of it."

The standoff appears to have such overtones: The pair could end up facing each other in the 1998 election for Howard County executive.

L And they're not the only two Howard politicians in the fray.

While defending his council expenses, Mr. Gray raised the matter of Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker's purchase last fall of a $1,462 office chair and $7,543 worth of other new office furniture -- using fund transfers that did not conform to county budget formalities.

Mr. Gray noted that, while Mr. Drown is publicly demanding repayment of some of his expenses, the Republican council chairman said nothing publicly last fall about Mr. Ecker's furniture purchases. At that time, Mr. Drown called the value of Mr. Ecker's furniture purchases "somewhat minuscule" compared with the county's total budget of more than a $100 million.

But Mr. Gray sees it otherwise, comparing his expenses to Mr. Ecker's furniture bill: "Even if I was $1,300 over, even if that was true, it's less than what he [Mr. Ecker] spent."

In a twist, Mr. Ecker said yesterday that Mr. Drown had a different reaction -- privately -- to the chair purchase. "It did upset him," Mr. Ecker said.

First efforts at limits

Efforts to limit council members' expenses started in early 1995, when Republicans took control of three of the council's five seats.

Then-chairman Charles C. Feaga suggested the council limit expenses by categories, such as cellular phone use and trips. On April 10, the council voted 5 to 0 to limit cellular telephone expenses to $1,500 a year -- a limit to begin July 1.

"I would suggest that this $1,500 probably should apply to

everybody in county government as well," Mr. Gray said during that meeting as he voted in favor of the phone expense limit.

Then, on October 10, the council voted 4 to 0 to change the expense limit to a total of $4,800 for all expenses. Mr. Gray did not attend the meeting.

Emery memo

Right after that meeting, council administrator Chris Emery sent a memo to all council members, which stated that the $4,800 limit would apply to all expenses during the 1996 fiscal year, which began July 1.

Since then, Mr. Emery has distributed a running total of individual council expenses each month. The totals go back to July 1.

Said Mr. Drown: "Every month we've been over that [issue], we've gone back to July 1. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone."

But Mr. Gray, in maintaining yesterday that the policy applies only to expenses since it was approved in October, said, "I think they've changed the rules to make it retroactive."

Since Oct. 10, Mr. Gray said he has spent about $3,200 on telephone and travel expenses. So that means he still has $1,600 left to spend before he exceeds the limit, he said.

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